Woodstown – Tra Mhilis Summer 1958

The sea and sky merge seamlessly on the horizon. We stop on the brow of Mattie’s Hill and gaze at the sea at Woodstown glistening and shimmering in the distance. It never fails to thrill and excite us.
“The tide is out.” Our war cry goes up.
We cycle, freewheeling down the hill, shrieking with excitement. As we arrive we breathe the sharp smell of the sea. A hazy mist is getting ready to lift, to disappear – our playground ready.

Broad beams of sunlight glint on the roofs and windows of Duncannon. Across massive mudflats, Dollar Bay can be seen in the distance; the stretching,
silky sand, muddy, sticky, black as ink. We sink as we walk toward the skyline, squelching mud mashing between our toes, a soothing and familiar sensation. As seasoned pickers we know what to look for, tell-tale ribbons of mud, small, rising sandy mounds, a sure sign of the harvest beneath. We start to dig, digging, digging and then that glorious sound, metal hitting shell. I dig gently, teasing, sifting, and there they are, my white shelled beauties. Rinsing it
in a shallow pool, I open the first one, knuckling one shell into the other, twisting until it clicks, it opens, a yellow snap-dragon face. I suck. Briny water runs down my chin, silky flesh slips silently down my throat.

The race is on. Who will pick the most? Nature is generous, and soon our buckets fill to overflowing. The sun warms our backs as we kneel and dig. Later we are careful to watch and listen for the approaching, incoming tide. Hearing it, now rushing, rhythmic, and gathering pace, it is time to stop. We gather seaweed and cover our crop. We splash and paddle in the warm eddying tide.

Hungry – picnic time – we run into the sand-dunes. Hunkering into soft sandy burrows we are sheltered by clumps of bracken and tufts of marram grass. We feast on thickly buttered Harney’s or Walshe’s blaas filled with ‘red-lead’ – stringy strips of home- cooked corned beef, home-grown tomatoes and scallions. Leahy’s doughnuts next, sugar- covered and greasy, they leave a sticky rim around our lips which we wash away with slugs of Big Brother Red Lemonade.

A flat sandy lane leads down to the cottage of Anastasia Barry, the cockle woman. Cockle shells everywhere, strewn on pathways, pressed onto flowerpots overflowing with vibrant Geraniums. Cockle shelled archways rise over streams of garden flowers. Fragrant are the Hollyhocks, Sweet William, Cowslips, Wall-flowers, and Nicotiana mixing with sea air. A Lourdes grotto has been created from shells – some painted blue; Mary elevated, Bernadette at her feet, cemented into a cockle shell carpet.
Anastasia weighs up our harvest. She pays us a shilling per bucket. Not much
for our crop, but enough for a fish and chip in Delicato’s, on the way home. She will set up her cockle stall early on Friday morning outside Dr. White’s chemist shop. She displays the cooked cockles in an enamel basin, covered with a snow-white muslin cloth. Her sales measure is an old tin tankard, battered to hold less.
We pass along the Woodstown Bog Road, as we cycle home. A grey heron rises, flapping. Reed-warblers sing in the rushes. As we near the city, the blue overhead fades and the sky fills with pink crushed clouds, like raspberry ripple ice-cream, a sure sign that tomorrow will be another perfect day. We’ll return again, Woodstown, Tra Mhilis, our generous, unique, and wonderful friend.